Tradition and Innovation as Worldviews: Is Research into Religion a Fool’s Errand?

Tradition and Innovation as Worldviews: Is Research into Religion a Fool’s Errand? June 13, 2019

Tradition and the internetHere’s a scenario. Let’s say that you, an enlightened resident of a modern country with electricity and anime and internet access, went back in time to the colonial Caribbean, where enormous plantations forced slaves to work under the scorching sun to produce nearly all the world’s sugar. Imagine that you also had, right at your fingertips, all the information you could ever need to logically prove to the owners of the colonial plantations that – despite their deeply held beliefs – slavery was actually pretty bad for slaves. Let’s further say that, as you step out of the time machine, you’re blissfully certain that as soon as the plantation owners hear your airtight argument, backed up by facts and evidence, they’ll immediately realize their error and emancipate their slaves. 

But really, of course, it’d be about thirty-five minutes before you got hacked to death by sugarcane machetes. Why? Because slaveholders’ warm, fuzzy beliefs about slavery were motivated cognition – jargon for “believing in things for emotional and usually self-interested reasons.” If someone believes that it’s raining, but I open a window and show that it’s not, he’ll just change his mind. But if that same person believes that forcing hundreds of malnourished slaves to work 14-hour days in blistering heat until one day they drop dead is perfectly okay, then there’s not much I can immediately do, in terms of marshaling evidence and reason, to convince him otherwise. His beliefs about the current weather are just inferences from evidence, but his beliefs about slavery are motivated. He has extrinsic incentives to believe them.

I’m bringing this up because I’ve started recently to wonder whether I’m on a fool’s errand. In trying to study and write about religion in ways that make it more intelligible and legible to scientifically minded, educated, technocrat-y sorts of people, what am I really expecting to accomplish? Do I think it’s possible to change anyone’s mind?

Let’s just say that overwhelming gobs of objective, empirically sound evidence supported the clear conclusion that, in fact, religion is more or less impossible to get rid of, and moreover that rationalist attempts to get rid of it generally produce extensive harm in the form of disrupted communities, impaired life cycles, the breakdown of cumulative culture, and other social and psychological problems.

In fact, a good amount of evidence does support these conclusions, but  I wouldn’t say that it’s overwhelming. An independent researcher acting in good faith could be perfectly justified in not drawing these conclusions. Still, for the sake of argument, let’s say that the evidence was that good. That compelling.

Cool Science, Twitter, and Religion

Would it change the technocratic view of religion? By “technocratic view of religion,” I mean something like the opinions about religion held by your typical rationalist – heuristically, a voracious reader of blogs like Slate Star Codex and Less Wrong, or a Silicon Valley coding whiz with a major presence on Reddit, or a big data nerd who gets in violent Twitter debates about Bayesian versus frequentist statistics, or someone like that. Obviously these aren’t all overlapping categories, but they do share something in common: a view of religion that, on average, consists of a set of gut-level assumptions, semantic associations, and socially learned biases to the effect that religion is Out Of Date and, probably, not just neutral but actively inimical to technological, epistemic, and social progress. (It goes without saying that the claims of religion are also seen as obviously false.) 

Sure, some rationalists might acknowledge that religion can have social value. But this is a minority position. Overall, the technocratic view of religion sees nothing wrong with the sudden, rapid decline of religious faith in the U.S. over the past decade, or the long, continual slide of Europe into post-Christianity. After all, compare these largely secular societies with more religious countries. Who’s got better health care, infrastructure, life expectancies, and functioning civil societies? Iceland has a church attendance rate of only 10% and a Human Development Index of .935 (on a scale from 0 to 1), while Nigeria is only 1% atheist and has a Human Development Index of .532 (putting it 157th out of 189). 

(We won’t get into the logical and statistical problems of comparing countries by levels of atheism against development indicators, such as the ecological fallacy or issues with historical path dependency that make cross-sectional comparisons quasi-worthless. Technocrats mostly take these comparisons at face value – inasmuch as these comparisons seem to demonstrate that religion is, at best, unnecessary for social well-being and civil society – so I won’t argue here.)

So that’s the technocratic view of religion. My thought experiment is, let’s say that I could irrefutably demonstrate that religion is objectively critical for human well-being in any core way, or that the excision of religion from human life would predictably lead to massive social and political problems over the scale of two generations. 

To reiterate: I don’t have this evidence, and no one else does, either. I’m just imagining that I did. 

Would my irrefutable proof of the necessity of religion for human well-being actually have any effect on what readers of rationalist blogs, or Twitter-savvy social science professors, or Silicon Valley mavens, or attendees of the Aspen Ideas Festival, or most journalists, personally think about religion?

No. I bet it wouldn’t.

The reason isn’t because technocrats are bad people who reason in bad faith, as I realize (belatedly) that my spiel about slavery in the Caribbean in the first few paragraphs may have set you up to think. So to make myself clear: I am not comparing technocrats to slaveowners. Not on the level of moral judgment, anyway. I happen to believe that history will judge our current Silicon Valley overlords harshly, but I don’t think their excesses are as obviously bad and cruel as whipping kidnapped African people to make them cut and process more sugarcane until they die. Not many excesses are.

What I mean is just that, like Caribbean plantation owners weren’t going to change their minds about this awful but – for them – economically profitable system based on anything as disinterested as objective evidence, rationalists and technocratic skeptics of religion have motivated reasons not to change their minds about the value of tradition or religion. 

Farmers and Foragers

I’ve written here before about forager versus farmer mindsets. Roughly, a forager mindset values individual initiative, exploration, loose social ties, and mobility. It’s useful for many hunter-gatherer societies, because their economic life depends on constant exploration and movement. As a result, their social structure is often a “fission-fusion” model, characterized by the constant cycling of individuals in and out of different bands. In a foraging social world, if there’s a conflict between people, one of the parties often leaves the band and joins another one. Problem solved. 

By contrast, farmers are tied down to the land they work, so they don’t have the luxury of just moving away. Their work is often highly interdependent and rule-based, so innovation and exploration become de-emphasized, with farmers relying instead on highly predictable routines and mutual coordination. Farming societies are more hierarchical, too. Storing grain or crops in sedentary, permanent settlements leads to inequalities in wealth, and farming economies are complex enough that formalized leadership structures become useful for setting measurement standards, coordinating markets, and so forth. Moralistic, authoritarian religions with formalized hierarchies and doctrines about afterlife punishments are effective for establishing and perpetuating these farmer values, so farming civilizations often have elaborate, formalized religious systems with strong priesthoods. 

(See my previous posts on big gods for more about this relationship between economics, social structure, and religious values.)

Heuristically, the farmer-forager distinction is useful for thinking about the cultural tensions in today’s world, particularly with regard to religion. What I’m calling technocrats – or rationalists, or libertarianish educated professionals, or whatever the best term is* – live a kind of modern-day foraging lifestyle. They usually have a lot of autonomy and self-direction at work, which itself tends to be pretty variable and to reward creativity and innovation. They need to be mobile, since good professional jobs often turn up in distant cities. Moving from hometowns to college to graduate school to first job or residency or whatever, they get used to uprooting themselves regularly, and their values reflect the resultant mobile mindset. Their ethics are highly individualistic, focused on autonomy and tolerance and not inhibiting others’ self-direction. They distrust tradition, not because they’re immature nonconformists, but because tradition would inhibit success within the social ecology they inhabit.

You can’t be ready to move to New York on the drop of a dime and then Washington, D.C. a few years after that if you’re too invested in your hometown. It’s hard to be a supercharged innovator if you regularly practice a millennia-old religion. Good luck fitting in with your skeptical, rationally minded peers if you accept the essentially arbitrary authority of some hoary religious doctrine. 

In other words, today’s cognitive elites have a vested interest in ideologies that promote mobility, innovation, and autonomy from tradition. They materially benefit by ignoring or spurning religion. 

These incentives are a lot more complicated than they might seem, too. It’s not that educated urbanites/rationalists/technocrats rationally calculate that religion rand tradition would prevent them from being effective manipulators of the postindustrial, globalized, professional economy. More often, they feel a strong – and sincere! – moral aversion to religious authority and tradition. Why? Their social worldviews are built up out of thousands of interactions with people who all face the same incentives and strategic pressures that they do. Moral sentiments are shaped in an emergent way by each person’s interactions with her social network. People learn what’s right and wrong by observing their high-prestige peers, and by paying attention to the consequences of acting and saying the right things versus the wrong things within the social contexts they identify with (or aspire to).

Moreover, despite the fact that moral beliefs are objectively very different in different societies or subcultures, our brains don’t process prescriptive morality as being culturally contingent and variable. In fact, the (non-) acceptance of different, valid cultural standards is one of moral psychology’s key criteria for differentiating between mere conventional beliefs and true moral emotions. 

In other words, if you have a moral belief about something, then your instinctive belief is that it applies everywhere, without exception. 

Thus, traditional values, authority, hierarchy, and religion might actually be highly adaptive for inhabitants of farming societies or, in our modern world, holders of blue-collar occupations that feature a lot of routine and rule-following. But if you’re a highly educated, mobile technocrat-y type person, your instinctive belief is that religion and traditional authority is bad for farmers and working-class people, too. Because they’re bad for all people.

Incentives and Social Change

Okay, so given all this, would powerful evidence that farming-style values (including moralistic religion and the acceptance of traditional authority) are necessary or valuable convince rationalists/technocrats/educated urbanites – who are presumably the major audience for intellectual products such as evolutionary social science – to, en masse, become advocates of G.K. Chesterton-style traditionalism? 

No,  it wouldn’t. The strategic and social incentives for maintaining a libertarian, autonomy-maximizing value system are just too great, within elite, rationally minded, professional social circles. 

This leads to some absurd consequences, such as conspicuous mismatches between explicit knowledge and implicit attitudes. Plenty of my highly educated, professional friends are perfectly willing to acknowledge in conversation that conservative or religious values can be good, even indispensable, for certain kinds of people, maybe even a lot of people. But their value systems don’t change on the basis of this acknowledgment. They’re still members of a social world where tradition and religion bear net costs. So they carry on, in all practical domains of life – from voting to sharing news stories from Vox on Facebook – exactly as before. 

But do I even want people to convert to G.K. Chesterton-style traditionalism, anyway? No, because not everybody can or should be a traditionalist, just like not everybody can or should be a progressive. Despite the insane polarization of American politics over the past five years, I still believe that society needs both farming and foraging types. So is my goal just to increase the quality and rigor of public and academic conversation about religion, tradition, and human psychology? I don’t know. “Increasing quality and rigor” seems like a pretty watery, feel-good type of objective. It doesn’t seem to get much done.

Maybe the problem is that I don’t know what should get done. Really, if I believe that tradition and authority and all those farmer-type institutions are necessary for civilization, I should want a higher proportion of people to actually hold those values. But you can’t convince people to hold particular values by rational evidence, no matter how compelling that evidence is. Values emerge, as I mentioned above, from social experiences such as strategic uptake of behaviors and beliefs from respected peers, long-term exposure to cultural systems during childhood, and things like that. In other words, only cultural processes can effect cultural change, and peer-reviewed papers in evolutionary social science journals don’t really count. 

A Case for Optimism?

But maybe I’m being too pessimistic. A recent post at Slate Star Codex reviews Joseph Henrich’s book The Secret of Our Success. Henrich makes the case that unquestioning obedience to cultural authority is what enabled humans to spread across the globe and become the most successful vertebrate species ever. The review comes to some interesting conclusions: 

One of the most important parts of any culture – more important than the techniques for hunting seals, more important than the techniques for processing tubers – is techniques for making sure nobody ever questions tradition. Like the belief that anyone who doesn’t conform is probably a witch who should be cast out lest they bring destruction upon everybody. Or the belief in a God who has commanded certain specific weird dietary restrictions, and will torture you forever if you disagree.…There’s a monster at the end of this book. Humans evolved to transmit culture with high fidelity. And one of the biggest threats to transmitting culture with high fidelity was Reason.

The author of Slate Star Codex – pseudonym Scott Alexander – isn’t exactly, like, a First Things-style Catholic reactionary. He’s a rationalist par example, with tremendous cognitive and educational resources, a congenital mistrust of inscrutable traditions, and a pretty autonomy-focused ethics. If Henrich’s book could get Alexander to question whether post-traditional rationality is always the best strategy, maybe there’s a space in the rationalist/progressive/science geek/educated elite world** for evidence-based argumentation about the relative merits, or cultural and psychological functions, of religion, after all. 

The point is that I don’t know. I’m using this space to try to think through what it is, exactly, concretely, that the scientific study of religion is supposed to accomplish. Most of the funding pitches (including my own) in the field appeal to stopping terrorism or something like that, because science is ultimately instrumental. It often seems as if the whole cognitive science/cultural evolution of religion hinges on the idea that (1) religion causes social problems, particularly terrorism, and (2) by understanding it better we can neutralize it and solve those problems.

If, therefore, you examine the evidence for a decade or so and come to the conclusion that this view of religion just isn’t true – that religion is a fundamental feature of human life and cannot simply be rationally managed away, and may even be pivotal for solving perennial, key psychological and social problems such as self-regulation and social cohesion and the production of meaning – then you’ve broken the axioms of the entire discourse. What you’re saying isn’t interpretable within the framework. It’s like trying to describe quantum chromodynamics using birdsong. 

But Alexander’s review of Henrich’s book offers a hint that maybe there could be a common epistemic framework after all. Some of the information may be assimilable across our cultural, social class, cognitive farmer-forager divides. I’d like to think so. I’m still not sure where that leaves my own work. I’m not complaining – I love my work. I’m just trying to figure out how and in what ways it matters, and how to be better at it without being partisan.

Conflict Is Real

The political philosopher and economist Thomas Sowell argues that an optimistic view of human nature leads naturally to the belief that all conflicts are based on misunderstandings. Clear up the misunderstanding, and the conflict will be resolved. But a pessimistic view of human nature leads to the conviction that conflicts are, sadly, rarely reducible to simple misunderstanding. Quite the contrary: many conflicts really are just zero-sum clashes between groups or individuals with fundamentally opposing interests. For example, militant Palestinians and militant Israelis are both heavily armed ethno-cultural groups with very different identities and histories that want the same land. There’s only so much land, and they both want it. This problem isn’t going to be easily solved if all parties simply sat down and practiced the kind of responsive listening and affirmation that couples are forced to learn in therapy. It’s a deep, bitter conflict, based on incompatible, mutually exclusive motives. 

It seems to me that reality often bears out the more pessimistic vision. In our cultural clash between educated, forward-thinking neo-foragers and conservative, tradition-bound farmers, I see real conflict. All the Model UN meetings in the world won’t change the fact that the value systems that work for routine-based labor and sedentary settlement patterns just don’t work for innovation-and-initiative work in mobile social environments, and vice versa. Even if neo-foragers cognitively grasp the sources of the value gap between themselves and neo-farmers, they can’t very well just drop their socially fluid, anti-traditional values if they still want to function well in the knowledge economy. 

The conflict, then, is perpetuated by really big, totally impersonal, macro-social and macroeconomic processes, in which we’re all – neo-farmer and neo-forager alike – caught up.

I don’t know where that leaves us. I’d love to know that crisp knowledge about religion and tradition – including knowledge that disconfirms the technocratic world’s prejudices – could have real effects in terms of better policies, putting brakes on cultural polarization, etc. But I mostly currently see an increasing scientific understanding that religion plays a key role in things like social cohesion and self-regulation, without any shift in the normative judgments that researchers and their audiences make. That’s because, as innovation feeds on itself, the small cognitive elite that have the chops to keep up with the constant change and creative destruction are more or less structurally forced to become less and less personally open to religion or tradition, since religion and tradition make it hard to function in a flexible, globalized economy. This is true even if a small minority of the cognitive elite keeps up with developments in my field and understands, propositionally, that religion can have benefits in the abstract. Abstraction is a different beast than real life, even for people whose jobs are fundamentally about the manipulation of symbols.

I don’t have any pithy conclusion, and this post is one of my longest ever, so instead of trying to wrap things up neatly I’ll just end here. Having written all this down, maybe I’ll get a sudden gobsmacking realization in the middle of the night about exactly how my kind of work can be useful and assimilable. If so, I’ll write that up here, too. Maybe it just means learning to be as good a public communicator as Joe Henrich. Or maybe it’s to just keep plugging away, adding brick by tiny brick to the edifice of knowledge – to defer immediate rewards for long-term ones, and to trust in the cumulative process of habit and disciplined routine to accomplish great things over many, many years. Just like a farmer.


* I realize that a lot of libertarians would shudder to think of themselves as technocrats. But the worldview similarities between rationalist libertarians and cool, Twitter-savvy academics are too profound and numerous to be mere coincidence, despite their disagreements about how big the government should be. Most obviously, both libertarians and true technocrats tend toward the forager side of the farmer-forager spectrum.

** Have you noticed that I’ve used a different combination of social descriptors every time I’ve tried to point out the audience I don’t know whether I can reach? That’s because the category is fuzzy. But it’s still a category, and it’s still useful. So I’m using a kind of conceptual triangulation to evoke a heuristic sense of the religion-skeptical worldview, rather than wasting my time trying to isolate a precise denotation of it.

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